My experience being a first-time observer on an international observation
I was first drawn to the opportunity of election observation whilst searching for jobs after leaving university. Whilst at University I wrote two dissertations in the field of electoral theory and domestic politics in the UK and found it intriguing. However, I had somehow never learnt about the importance of election observation and so when I found the advert for Democracy Volunteers my interest was sparked. How was it that throughout years of studying elections and the political milieu in education, I had never encountered the topic?
I registered my interest and shortly thereafter attended a training day in Manchester, where the role that observers play was presented, alongside more details on how it is practiced in the field. I knew straight away that it was a role I wanted to explore. My opportunity came only a few weeks after, when I was offered the chance to observe the ‘Provincial and Water Board elections’ in the Netherlands. I had limited knowledge of Dutch politics and was slightly nervous that I had never even heard of a Water Board or worked in any professional capacity abroad before in my life! Even so, early on the 16th of March I headed to Birmingham airport having familiarised myself with some of the issues we would be investigating and headed to Amsterdam.
On arrival I met up with the team which consisted of five other observers, some of whom I had previously met and chatted with at the training day back home. They put my worries at ease straight away as we quickly bonded through discussing politics, each other’s interests, playing games and even having a few drinks! During most of the week we were based in The Hague where we stayed in an apartment. In the first few days, I gained deeper knowledge about Dutch electoral processes that we would be evaluating as well as the politics of the region. This was done through reviewing new policies implemented by the Dutch government, reading detailed outlines of the domestic political parties and issues and a variety of meetings with stakeholders and key actors in Dutch elections. For me, this was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip as we were able to have meetings with senior officials from the Dutch central government, Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and city councils. A combination of the welcoming nature of the Dutch authorities and that Democracy Volunteers had previously given helpful ideas on how to improve the electoral process, meant we had incredible access to the powers that be. We were even able to discuss our work with officials at the British Embassy which was a highlight!
This was a completely new experience to me, which was slightly daunting, but we were encouraged to ask questions and actively participate in the meetings which taught me a lot about how the elections were run. It also gave me interests in areas I had never thought about in much detail, for example the issues surrounding the extensive use of proxy voting in The Netherlands as well as the logistics of carrying out an election.
On election day itself, we were put into pairs and any inexperienced observers, such as me, were coupled with a more expert observer. By the time we came to set out to our list of polling stations in Amsterdam and Leiden my partner, Luis, and I had established our route to cover as much ground as possible. We were able to observe in a wide variety of polling stations from schools to hotels and council buildings to train stations whilst assessing the quality of them and the voting occurring within. At first this seems very strange. An environment that one is usually exposed to for a few minutes every couple of years becomes your place of work for the day. I had previously been shown what to expect and watch out for when entering the polling stations such as number of voters, instances of family voting and the level of accessibility. Throughout the day we were able to witness many interesting scenarios, such as voters discussing their ballots and attempting to vote without ID, which were handled to differing extents by polling staff. Although the elections were well run in general, seeing these instances of improper voting was fascinating as it demonstrated the challenges that are still present, even in one of the most highly regarded democratic systems on the in the world. Furthermore, during the observation we were able to witness democracy in action, which is extremely fulfilling as we watched a vast array of voters make their decisions and interact with the democratic process.
A further benefit of observing abroad was the opportunity to travel around the country. I had previously been to the Netherlands, but never set foot outside Amsterdam, like most Brits. However, through traveling to meetings and on election day itself, I was able to experience the culture and beauty of multiple cities such as The Hague, Leiden, Rotterdam and Delft. As someone who loves to travel the observation provided a great opportunity to soak in much more of the country and experience the people and places through a different lens to that possible through a holiday.
Following my experience, I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in elections and politics to leap at the opportunity to observe, whether in the UK or abroad. Not only is it a great opportunity to attain a greater knowledge of the electoral process in a foreign nation, it allows you the opportunity to travel, meet great people and immerse yourself in something you find interesting. So, if you are thinking about giving it a go, don’t let any worries you have hold you back, you won’t regret it!
Harry Busz gained degrees in Geography at Cardiff University followed by a Master’s in International Relations at Exeter University, he begins a new job in local government next month